Working for success: planning for failure

The news that an academy chain has lost responsibility for 10 schools raises a number of interesting questions. The most obvious is who has the responsibility to find these children an appropriate education? In the present instance, the DfE seems to be doing that by looking for a replacement sponsor or sponsors. How long should they be allowed if it is a question of teaching and learning standards?

No doubt the Laws’ Leaders, as David Laws’ new national leaders are likely to be dubbed, could be sent in to lead individual schools during any interim while new sponsors are brought on board, but what about the ownership of the assets? The situation becomes even more interesting if it were, say, a church group of academies. Would the solution be to change diocese, but who would own the assets if the schools had previously been voluntary aided? Suppose the Trustees decided that they didn’t want anyone else running the school, and just effectively closed it down. Who finds the pupils new schools? Generally, when a private school goes bust, which is often at short notice, and frequently just before a term starts or ends, and the local authority steps in to help find places for the pupils that need them. However, where it is no longer the admissions authority for most schools in a locality, how will it do this if the other academies refuse to cooperate because the in-coming pupils might affect their examination results or their balanced admissions policy?

As with the problem highlighted in my previous post, what happens if any closure affects the transport budget for the local authority? Will the DfE pick up the extra costs or establish some form of insurance scheme?

Presumably, when a new sponsor takes over the running of part of an existing chain there will have to be a financial reckoning as well, especially as academy budgets run to a different cycle than that of local authorities and central government. Will any existing service contracts with the academy chain be automatically continued or regarded as up for renewal as a result of the loss of responsibility?

Hopefully, these issues will be rare occurrences, but new developments in any field often come with associated failures, so they must not have been unexpected. When a whole local authority is judged unacceptable, it is clear what happens, as it is when a single school fails. However, the failure of a group or part of a group of schools brings these fresh challenges, especially, potentially, in relation to the assets.

All these questions highlight the desperate need for an effective middle tier for state education in England operating within an overall framework that clearly delineates areas of responsibility. The relative functions of the national government at Westminster, local authorities, the churches and other faith groups, and the non-aligned academy chains, plus the large number of independent sponsor academies, all need to be able to operate within some form of secure and understandable framework. At present, especially for the primary sector, the fastest growing area for academy development at present, the rules are still unclear. Approaching four years since the 2010 Academy Act became law this is not an acceptable position of schooling across England to find itself in.

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